The all-important post-Thanksgiving holiday sales period got off to a subdued start at bookstores around the country this year. As expected, foot traffic was light. The National Retail Federation reported the number of in-store shoppers fell 37% on Black Friday compared with last year while the number of customers who shopped only online through the weekend and on Cyber Monday rose by 44% over 2019. Bookshop.org sold some approximately $2.3 million in books over the period from Friday through Monday, according to Andy Hunter, CEO of Bookshop.org.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon.com reported it had its best period ever in the company’s history and noted on a blog post that among its bestselling items were several books, including Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (Crown) and The Deep End (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #15) by Jeff Kinney (Abrams/Amulet); both titles were also cited by nearly all the bookstores surveyed by PW. Other bestsellers at Amazon included Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (Crown), A Time for Mercy by John Grisham (Doubleday), The Sentinel by Lee Child (Delacorte), and Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson (Tor), among adult books, as well as Grime and Punishment (Dog Man #9) by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic/Grafix) in the children’s category.
Some shoppers expressed concerned about the impact that Amazon was having on the indies. Last weekend, outside Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., Chris Morton waited in a line with his teenage daughter, and planned to buy a book as a gift for the holidays. “If I get a chance, I’ll come here to get books as opposed to getting them online,” Morton said. But he worried the impact of one customer might not be enough to help indies stay open through the pandemic. “Obviously indies closing is something that I don’t want to see happen but it’s also the kind of thing where it’s hard to feel you have any control over it,” he said. “I can buy a book here once in a while but the occasional book that I buy here isn’t going to keep them afloat.”
As a consumer, Morton said he supported government intervention to break up Amazon’s dominance in the industry. “You have to,” he said. “Otherwise, power and money consolidates until someone can somehow stop it or do something to regulate it.”
From the bookstore’s side of things, however, individual purchases did add up from the weekend. Belmont co-owner Chris Abouzeid said this year’s sales tallies were 99.9% of last year’s Small Business Saturday weekend. “Decent weather was a big help, though online sales obviously filled in whatever holes there were in our in-store shopping numbers,” Abouzeid said.
In addition to Obama and Kinney, the store’s bestsellers were Glennon Doyle’s Untamed (Dial) and Alix E. Harrows’s The Once and Future Witches (Redhook).
At Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vt., sales were down 9% compared to last year’s Small Business Saturday weekend. “That makes sense, as our number of transactions was down by about 100, due to travel bans and capacity restrictions, and overall fewer people going out in public,” said co-owner Kristian Preylowski. “But we're okay with those numbers, all things considered. Some of our best sales days in a long time.”
Online orders have come in from around the country, and Preylowski said in-store customers have been open to waiting for the occasional title that needs back ordering, with an awareness that indies need the business now more than ever. “I think people understand, given the situation this year. People want to support and understanding how serious it is. We’ve gotten a number of people saying I’d rather support you than Amazon,” Preylowski said. “We always hear that, but it’s a lot more this year. Word is getting out.”
As with other indies, Obama’s memoir topped the store’s bestseller list. “It’s just awesome to have that book,” Preylowski said. “To have a great bestselling title this year is especially helpful. That’s definitely going to help all the indies pull through.”
Emily Hall Schroen, owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., said sales were only down 3% for the day from last year. “Since St. Charles City, St. Charles County, and the state of Missouri do not have mask mandates in place, it makes us a very popular destination for shoppers, since we do have a mask mandate in the store, as well as a 10-customer occupancy limit,” she said.
“Overall, it was a good weekend. We've had worse Black Friday/SBS weekends, and we've had better. I'm an optimist pretty much always. We'll get through the holidays. We'll survive into January. Our online orders are way up, waaaaaaaay up -- over 1100% from last year, yes 1100 -- so that has been an incredibly huge help," Schroen said. The store’s bestseller was by a local radio host Charlie Brennan, whose Only in St. Louis (CWB Media) sold 14 copies, said Schroen, outselling A Promised Land by three. For fiction, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two (Ballantine) was the bestseller, with five copies sold.
Children's favorites included The Office: A Day at Dunder Mifflin Elementary by Robb Pearlman, illus. by Melanie Demmer (Little, Brown), perennial favorites The Sweet Smell of Christmas by Patricia M. Scarry (Golden Books) and Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers (Dutton). Schroen said young adult and middle grade books sold slower than expected, but they have numerous preorders for A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill), and are selling numerous copies of City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab (Scholastic), The Unforgettable Guenevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (Atheneum), and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown), all of which are nominated for state library awards.
Over the weekend, CBS Sunday Morning profiled Charlied Mackesy, author of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (HarperOne), prompting a flurry of orders on Monday morning, said Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Book Shop in Houston. She called the weekend "a little more subdued" than in years past, "when we would have normally had a big party, but this year we didn’t do any promotion other than social media. We are letting people shop in the store by appointment and all our appointments were booked from the beginning to the end of the day. Web orders were also good and we’ve been hearing from people all over the country.”
The bestselling title at her store this holiday season has been the novel Memorial by Houstonian Bryan Washington (Riverhead), which has sold more than 200 copies. The bookstore started monthly subscription boxes for baby books and YA titles this past September, which have been a success so far, said Koehler. “We’ve sold 70 subscriptions to baby books and 35 for YA books,” she said. The most popular middle grade and YA titles at the store have been the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer (Philomel) and Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Algonquin), and These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (S&S/McElderry).
Koehler said that customers were also interested in audiobooks and she was happy to recommend and sign people up for Libro.fm. Libro was giving away a free audiobook (from a curated list of titles) to anyone who spent $15 at an independent bookstore. Overall, the audio bookseller recorded $171, 583 in sales from 3,135 customers at 778 participating stores (the biggest single purchase was $1,280.31), from Wednesday, November 25 to Monday, November 30.
After a generally quiet period leading up to Thanksgiving weekend, some booksellers were simply overwhelmed with the orders they got, particularly if they have been closed to customers.
“It's really hard to compare this year's numbers to last year's because almost all of our sales are web orders now -- we are still closed for public browsing and are operating an entirely online presence," said Gretchen Treu, co-owner of A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., which has been closed since March. “There are about 300 web orders that still need to be imported and processed in our inventory system, but based on the website reports this year vs our inventory system reports last year and I think we're up by about 25%."
The store created its own holiday catalog this year (a physical booklet and online lists) which Treu said was great for staff morale. In addition to selling numerous copies of Obama’s memoir, she said the store has sold several of Dolly Parton's Songteller (Chronicle), Mutual Aid by Dean Spade (Verso), and Ace by Angela Chen (Beacon), as well as the picture books You Are a Beautiful Beginning by Nina Laden, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley (Roaring Brook) and The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann (Candlewick).
"I have no idea how the sales season will shake out. We improved some of our staff workflow around web orders -- the old way was fine when there were a dozen web orders a day, but with hundreds we had to get more efficient, but there are still a lot more moving parts with a web order than there are making an in-person sale and I worry that we'll hit a ceiling in terms of being able to work through web orders quickly enough to keep up with the usual December volume,” said Treu. “Nothing is normal this year and so long as we can keep on top of our bills, keep our staff energized and our audience connected, we'll get through this to better sales times."
Bigger stores and chains seem to have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Dallas-based chain Half-Price Books, with 127 stores across the U.S., did not run typical Black Friday promotions this year in deference to the need to maintain social distancing protocols. “While our sales are down, we’ve been pleased with the start of the holiday season, and are taking a slow and steady approach,” said Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive v-p and chief strategy officer. “We know the holiday season is stressful for our employees and have been so proud of their efforts.” She cited sales of Ready Player Two among the titles selling strongly.
Sometimes it helps to have a bit of luck. For Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Calif., a timely profile in the Los Angeles Times helped bring people into the store and resulted in a major uptick in sales. “It was syndicated and folks from all over the country are now sending us online orders,” said Palacios, who noted, nevertheless, that sales over the holiday shopping weekend were down 30%.
Palacios's major concern was that southern California would be ordered to go into lockdown again, which happened today in Los Angeles. Fortunately, she said, the store has invested in making the most of its indie commerce site, though, she added, “our online order capacity is still backlogged and will continue to be as we work through this crucial time.” Bestsellers at the store include The Trouble with Penguins by Rebecca Jordan-Glum (Roaring Brook), books in the Keepers of the Lost Cities series by Shannon Messenger (Aladdin), and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Abrams).
Shipping delays and meeting customer expectations were on the minds of many booksellers surveyed by PW, including Mimi Hannan, book buyer at La Playa Books in San Diego, who said the store was trying to make space for a “warehouse-type” shipping operation this holiday season. One book that has been in demand that the store has had on continual back order is A Wealth of Pigeons by Steve Martin (Celadon); other titles selling well include the Moroccan novel Straight from the Horse's Mouth by Meryem Alaoui, translated by Emma Ramadan (Other Press) and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (Tor).
Though Black Friday weekend sales were down 50% compared with 2019, Hannan reported that everyone at the store was optimistic. “We’re feeling pretty relaxed and realistic, all things considered,” she said. “We're as prepared as we can be, so it's just responding to the challenges of the day from here on out.”